Melding the attitude and wit of punk, with jazz and funk sensibilities, legendary post-punkers Use No Hooks formed out of Melbourne's Little Band Scene of the early 80s. The band traversed experimental and avant-garde worlds and their track "Do The Job, featuring vocals from Primitive Calculators' Stuart Grant, has become an iconic punk-funk artefact.
Over the last few months founding members Mick Earls and Arne Hanna, have been rehearsing and organising their old reel-to-reel material for their first show in 33 years that takes place in Melbourne this weekend.
Mick and Arne met at the tail end of the 1970s. After a few years collaborating together, they brought in drummer Steve Bourke to launch the original incarnation of Use No Hooks, a three-piece called Sample Only. At this time, a burgeoning post-punk community was developing in venues around the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Constituted by over a dozen 'little bands', the scene involved informal and frequently changing groups of three to four people who would play together at gigs, routinely sharing members, equipment, and a spontaneous approach to music-making.
It was tumultuous, but a formative period of Australian music, that was romanticised in later years by Richard Lowenstein's 1986 film Dogs in Space. "Stuart Grant and the rest of Primitive Calculators were a big part of that scene," says Arne. "Some of those guys could really play their instruments, but that wasn't the point of the music. We felt that virtuosity was overrated."
Sample Only played new material at each gig, much of it composed of "minimalist instrumental backing tracks, almost like surf music," Mick recounts. "We would overlay it with organ drones and pre-recorded samples from radio programs, on tape recorders that we operated with foot pedals."
Over subsequent years, the band cycled through a series of different directions and incorporating a succession of vocalists, bass guitarists, keyboard players and saxophonists. Sample Only became the more consolidated Use No Hooks, though improvisation remained a core part of each performance. Funk, disco, soul and blues music began to play a role in their output, as Mick and Arne became increasingly drawn to the complexity of these genres.
"An important influence on the music we are producing now was the special brand of Washington-based funk called 'Go Go', invented during the 1980s by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, and the mighty Trouble Funk," says Mick.
"What's most impressive about this music is the grounding of its dance rhythms in tough, supple, sinuous grooves that are sustainable indefinitely in live settings," he adds, "while being overlaid with a shifting array of melodic lines in keyboards and brass, and the call-and-response vocals involving many voices."
"We love dance music, we listened to a lot of African artists like Fela Kuti," Arne tells me. "The ability of music to animate the human body is something that's undervalued in western society."
Perhaps it was the ability of their own music to animate that human body that's seen the only released track by Use No Hooks', a sprawling six-minute number titled "Do the Job", resurface 30 years after the band split. "Do the Job" was recorded in the 'disco-funk phase' of their history – their final constitution as a nine-piece band. "We had a few songs recorded, and that one was collected by Chapter Music," Mick recounts. 'Do the Job' was subsequently released in 2007, as part of the compilation Can't Stop It II, Australian Post Punk 1979-84.
Almost a decade on in Melbourne, Do the Job has become a namesake for its own dedicated club night after receiving extensive play by local DJ, Mickey Edwards. "I was surprised at how popular it is now," Arne tells me. At a time where the commercial music industry faces an uncertain future, it makes sense that younger generations might also look back toward a seemingly simpler time. Mick feels the creative freedom of the post-punk era is a source of longing for some. "It's virtually impossible to overestimate the significance of punk itself in the culture of the music industry in the late 70s," he says. "To even contemplate being in a band before that time, you had to be prepared to outlay thousands of dollars buying the latest and best equipment whether you needed it or not, plus the right accoutrements and costuming to go with it. You had to surround yourself on stage with a huge spectacle that was bigger and shinier than your rivals, and be fully committed to playing along with an increasingly commercialised, and indeed corporatised, fantasy of what constituted music. Punk swept all that away in a single fell swoop."
"Punk said that if you reckon you can get up on a stage with a few elementary pieces of equipment and make a noise that will draw an audience, then we'll give you ears. Punk itself didn't, and couldn't, last as a musical form in its own right. So if punk wiped the musical slate clean, post-punk freed up musicians and audiences alike to open their ears to virtually any kind of music, and indeed kind of sound they might like to try out," Mick continues, "no matter how raw and rough, or elegant and sophisticated, those sounds might be. Audiences usually seemed to find something interesting in this, even if it didn't always work."
Post-punk also blurred the line between 'artist' and 'audience' – the crowds at most 'Little Band Nights' were comprised of people who, themselves, would try their hand at hopping onstage and picking up an instrument for fifteen minutes. The unspoken trust and license to creativity that existed in these spaces created an environment of near-unconditional support, where performers weren't just allowed to push boundaries, they were rewarded for it too.
"There was no expectation or pressure placed upon us to make music that might, one day soon, become popular. This was an enormously liberating thing for musicians, but even more so for non-musicians who might themselves like to have a go at getting some music together to perform live," says Mick. "It was in this atmosphere that the 'Little Band' movement emerged."
"The audiences weren't all that large, nor very enduring, but they were very, very supportive and engaged, and in the end that was perhaps the most significant feature of all."
Use No Hooks perform at Melbourne's Belleville Oct 23.
Text: Somayra Ismailjee